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Indiana Historical society exhibit spotlights early Jewish merchants

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — In the 19th and 20th centuries Jewish immigrants played a major role boosting the city’s economy. Now, a new exhibit at the Indiana Historical Society is spotlighting the contributions of early Jewish merchants.

Washington Street was the primary location for many of these Jewish businesses, and while things have changed since the early 1900s, architecture still shows that they were here.

Indianapolis was a new city in the 1850s when immigrants started making their way here. Jewish immigrants, many of them peddlers, using skills learned in their home countries were able to find their way.

“So their business is starting out and wagons and trucks and things like that grew they slowly got stores in the stores grew and you end up with these giant department stores that service Indianapolis and brought lots of people in,” Jessica Fischer said.

That entrepreneurial spirit is displayed in the Indiana Historical society’s soon-to-open Jewish Merchant exhibit. Visitors can look back in time through pictures and interactive activities.

“As a result of necessity and the nature of chain migration many Jews became involved in retail,” said Michael Brown with the Indiana Jewish Historical Society.

He said Jewish immigrants didn’t just get into retail, they transformed it. The previous barter system went out the window.

“Being an equitable dealer selling clothing at a set price, rather than just a random arbitrary prices that was the norm doing that,” Brown said.

So, shopping in the 19th and 20th century changed from a chore to a pastime for white and even Black shoppers from the city and surrounding areas.

“Many of the stores were right off of the main thoroughfare that the Union Station fit into, so it was easy for people to come outside of Indianapolis on a train, come in and do their shopping, explore the various culinary delights and things like that, that Indianapolis head so that helped to grow it,” Fischer said.

This exhibit opens this weekend ahead of an Eva Kor exhibit, and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

News release

INDIANAPOLIS (January 14, 2022) — The Indiana Historical Society (IHS)’s newest exhibit, Jewish Merchants of Downtown Indianapolis, opens tomorrow, January 15, at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, located at 450 W. Ohio St. in downtown Indianapolis.

“The exhibit expands on the history of Jewish merchants — Hiram Passmore Wasson, William Herman Block, Leopold Strauss and others — and how their stores played a significant role in offering Indianapolis an innovative shopping experience on par with some of the largest department stores around the world.

“The centerpieces of many cities all over the world, department stores were lavish palaces of consumption, filled with every product and service imaginable. Their beginnings, however, were humble.

“’Department stores emerged from small, no-frills, dry-goods stores that sold a limited selection of merchandise,’ said Indiana Historical Society Exhibitions Research Assistant Jessica Fischer. ‘Indianapolis had its own grand department stores, many of which were established and operated by Jewish business owners.’

“These business owners contributed to Indianapolis through their successful companies that bolstered the city’s economy and their legacy as generous citizens who gave back to the community through actions like organizing welfare associations and providing trust funds for charitable organizations.

“The Jewish Merchants of Downtown Indianapolis exhibit is presented by Walter and Joan Wolf and included with admission to the Indiana Historical Society. Visit for the most up-to-date admission prices. IHS members and children younger than 5 receive free admission.

“Also available through IHS’s Basile History Market is new IHS Press title “Looking Forward, Giving Back: The Jewish Merchants of Downtown Indianapolis,” a book by Kenneth L. Turchi that traces the 150-year history of the Jewish merchants, offering a glimpse of a more genteel time when shopping downtown was a special experience.

“For more information about this exhibit and other IHS offerings, call (317) 232-1882 or visit”

News release from Tiffany Whisner, Indiana Historical Society